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Attitude Adjustment

Hours before a mid-April game against the Detroit Tigers, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle recalled a story about his younger days, playing for manager Whitey Herzog.

As the story goes, or at least as Hurdle remembers it, the whole team was struggling at the plate, and frustration was setting in.

“What time is BP tomorrow?” a player asked as the team was on their way back to the hotel.

Never one to mince words, Herzog replied: “We’re gonna take BP in the hotel lobby, and we don’t gotta worry about breaking anything.”

So maybe that’s not as constructive an approach as the ever-positive Hurdle has taken in his managerial career, but the impact of those words has followed him to coaching stops in Colorado, Texas, and now Pittsburgh.

“Some guys, that loosened up.  Some guys, that clammed up,” Hurdle said of Herzog’s comments.  “I’ve been through it – I’ve lived it as a coach, I’ve lived it as a manager, I’ve lived it as a player…  Every move can send a message.”

So far in his first season replacing John Russell as the Pirates manager, Hurdle’s message has been clear:  stay loose, focus on the day at hand, and don’t worry about the past.  

“From the get-go, I think that’s what Clint tried to do – to adjust the attitude,” said pitcher Charlie Morton. “That was his main goal coming into spring training. I think we are kind of reaping the rewards of being on the positive and not really carrying around as much as we were. I think a lot of us were just carrying around a lot of weight [last season], and we didn’t really shed any of that.”

This season, Morton has shed the most weight of all, starting with the lack of confidence that plagued him last year and continuing with shaving almost five runs off his earned run average (at print time he was 5-2 with a 2.61 ERA). Last season his numbers weren’t just bad (2-12 with a 7.57 era), they were the worst among all starting pitchers in major league baseball.

“I think the emphasis is on moving on,” Morton said of the atmosphere surrounding the team now.  “There’s no pushing of the panic button.”

That theory was tested when the Pirates dropped six straight games after raising their record to 18-17 on May 9 – the latest in the season they were above the .500 mark since May 29, 2004, when they were 23-22.

It just takes a brief history lesson to realize that, in recent years, such a losing streak would have marked the beginning of the end to the Pirates season.  

Just how bad has it been?  Since 2002, the Pirates have reached the .500 mark in May on six separate occasions (twice in both 2002 and 2004), each time setting off a free-fall immediately after.

The early returns on this season show that the Pirates are looking to buck that trend.  After dropping to 18-23, a season-low five games under .500, they won four straight and entered June with a 26-28 record.

“I feel like we have a much more resilient team this year,” said second baseman Neil Walker. “The team’s characteristics and attitude will follow the manager’s, and Clint is upbeat every day. His mindset is looking forward, not looking back and not worrying about what’s in the past or what happened yesterday for that matter. How can we get better today and how can we get better on a daily basis?”

But Hurdle doesn’t deserve all the credit for an improved team attitude, just as those who came before him don’t deserve all the blame for past failures. After all, Hurdle’s approach was the same in Colorado, where he led the Rockies to only one winning season in seven-plus years and compiled a record of 534-624 (a .461 winning percentage). He was eventually fired a quarter of the way into the 2009 season, replaced by Jim Tracy, whom the Pirates had just fired two years earlier.

Tracy, who was ridiculed for his managerial style in Pittsburgh, went 74-42 the rest of the way in Colorado, earning both the Sporting News’ Manager of the Year award and the Baseball Writers’ Association of America National League Manager of the Year award – proof that what works in one clubhouse, might not work in another.  

Adjusting the atmosphere surrounding a team may start with the manager, but it rests solely on the players to adopt it and put it into action. That task becomes easier when many of the core players came up together within the same organization and have a familiarity with each other.

“There’s definitely a feeling of not being overwhelmed or feeling out of place,” said Walker. “There are a lot of guys that have played together for a long time, and that’s unusual. I’ve played with Andrew McCutchen for a long time, Pedro Alvarez the last couple of years, Steve Pearce my entire career. You spend so much time with them on the field that a lot of times guys just want to go the other way. In this clubhouse, it’s not quite that way. There are a lot of guys that have a lot in common and we go to dinner a lot, hang out a lot and talk a lot. It’s a really good atmosphere.”

A good clubhouse atmosphere and positive thinking can only get you so far, though – just ask Hurdle about his final days in Colorado. Going on extended losing and winning streaks will eventually catch up to you, more often than not in a negative way. In fact, after the Pirates responded to their season-high six-game losing streak with four straight wins, they dropped their next three, getting shut out twice.

Eventually, in order to be successful, consistency has to factor into the equation.

“The youngness of this team will go through streaks,” said veteran outfielder Matt Diaz. “As we mature as a team, as a group, we’ll start to get more consistent. There will be a lot of series wins two to one rather than lose six, win four. That just comes from getting to high and too low, and Clint’s the right guy to put a stop to that.”  

It would be unusual for a player to say that the atmosphere this season wasn’t better than seasons in the past.  It would be even more unusual for a player to say Hurdle isn’t the right man for the job. At the end of the day, what happens and what is said behind closed doors usually stays there. All the Pirates really can be judged by is how they perform on a daily basis. A new managerial team may breathe new life into a dead atmosphere, but the players need to step up and lead as well. Which they believe they have, and as a group.

“I don’t think there is one guy we gravitate towards,” said Morton referring to clubhouse leadership. “We all really rely on each other.”

“It’s better if it’s a group [of leaders],” said first baseman Lyle Overbay. “That means everybody else is thinking the same way.”

One thing is certain – Hurdle has brought positivity and a forward-looking mentality that the team has been lacking in years past.  

Morton recalled one such example that took place in the clubhouse in Milwaukee, right after the Brewers put the finishing touches on a three-game sweep in early May.  

“Instead of coming in, screaming and yelling at us, he told us to hit the showers, wash it off, and get it ready for the next day,” said Morton. “That was exactly what we needed to hear.”

Hurdle has said the right things, and the players have listened. The success that results rests on the players’ ability to put the words, and the new attitude, into action.

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